What’s in a name? A brief review of the validity and authenticity of Latin American dances’ names in ballroom dancing.

David Outevsky MSc, PhD Candidate York University, Toronto (February 2013)

Ballroom ‘Latin’ dancing as a colonial remnant

If you have ever searched for a dance video in Youtube with keywords such as: samba, rumba, cha cha, or tango; you would have most likely found the ballroom versions of these dances with a few links to the ‘authentic’ Latin dances as well. If you took the time to read the comments underneath those videos, you would also discover a fierce debate between many Latinos passionate about their dances and ballroom aficionados about whether the ballroom versions of the dances constitute actual derivatives of the originals and whether or not that is an issue worthy of discussion. I, like many other career dancers usually dismiss the whole conversation as trivial to my craft and a pointless debate. However, with my recent introduction to the discipline of dance studies my opinion began to change.

Realistically, like many other colonial remnants ballroom dancing is rooted in Eurocentric and racist practices of cultural appropriation that date back to the first contact between Europeans and Native Americans. If you are familiar with the history of American colonisation, you will know that the first discoverers found the natives to be primitive, and set out on a mission to ‘civilize’ them.  The culture of the natives was suppressed and their rituals and practices were banned, including their dances. Colonisation and oppression is never a one way movement though, and covert resistance and subtle re-interpretation of the dances by the native populations provided a counter-colonial expression out of which new practices were born (Imada 2012, 17-20 in relation to Hula). An example of this can still be seen in Salsa, which combines the vertical stance and couple hold of the Spaniards with the hip actions and rhythms of Afro Cubans.  (McMains 2006, 156-169). The ballroom versions of Latin dances however represent a very different type of metamorphosis.

“If you had a national cultural dance which was first suppressed, modified to be more ‘civilized’, and then sold to millions of practitioners as an exotic commodity by the same people who colonised your country, how would you feel about them also appropriating the name of this dance?”

Rumba

If we take the rumba for instance, it really is has very little to do with what rumba in Latin America really is or was. It is generally agreed that the ballroom rumba stems from the Cuban ‘Son’, a middle class ‘white’ couple dance in Cuba.  It was subsequently reformed by Pierre Zurcher Margolie and Doris Lavelle to a version that was the predecessor of the ‘international’ style rumba today (McMains 116-124). Neither version however does justice nor is truly representative of their roots, the modifications for ‘polite society’ simply ‘whitewashed’ the dance in the same way that hip hop was appropriated for white audiences in music videos and pop culture (Borelli 149-152).

Cha Cha Chá

The cha cha chá, as it should be properly named and pronounced was also modified to suit the studio teaching methods (McMains 124-125). Anyone who has ever seen this dance in a club setting or in a Latin American country can testify that it is also quite different visually to what is taught in ballroom studios. While closer to its namesake than the rumba, the technical priorities of the ballroom interpretation of cha cha chá greatly differentiate it from the original. What is important to realize is that there is no hierarchy here, and ballroom technique is not an improvement on the Latin dance but rather an appropriation with political and social connotations.

“The cha cha chá, as it should be properly named and pronounced was also modified to suit the studio teaching methods (McMains 124-125)”

Samba

The samba on the other hand has many versions in Brazil and often denotes ritual and even religious practices as well as social forms. The American and European adaptations of this dance played highly on the exotic fantasies of the tropical paradise promoted by Hollywood. When the modified gafiera  version combined with other ‘ballroom friendly’ styles of samba were brought to Europe by Pierre and Lavelle, the European and American imaginations had already constructed an image of the exotic other which made samba an easy sell and a popular dance (McMains 125).

Issues

There are further issues with the names of other ballroom dances’ as well as their popular history but they will not be addressed at this time. After this brief discussion I would ask you the following question: If you had a national cultural dance which was first suppressed, modified to be more ‘civilized’, and then sold to millions of practitioners as an exotic commodity by the same people who colonised your country, how would you feel about them also appropriating the name of this dance? One of the problems in the last few decades regarding the media coverage and general spread of ballroom dancing around North America, Europe, and other countries around the world, is the identification of the ballroom Latin dances as ‘authentic’ in popular culture, where they are often considered superior to the original Latin versions (McMains 147).

Possible Solutions

While I can’t pretend to have solutions for all the issues described above (and that was a much shortened description) I would however like to deal with the names. My proposition here is to consider the example of the music industry in which remixes are credited to the original singer/songwriter and are identified as such. For example: “Nina Simone’s – Feeling good (Nicolas Jaar edit) ‘Nico’s feeling Good’”. Another possibility is to follow theatrical dance, where classical pieces are given a prefix when re-choreographed, such as “Mathew Bourne’s Swan Lake”. It might sound strange to say ‘dancesport samba’ at first, but comparatively it was also strange to say Inuit instead of Eskimo (the latter a derogative racist term) although it made a huge difference for the population in question.  Perhaps if we just acknowledged that we are not actually dancing the original Latin dances and give them back their names we can take one step toward redeeming some of the unspoken history of our field and making a it truly international form.

David Outevsky

Works cited

Borelli B. Mellisa. “A Taste of Honey: Choreographing Mulatta in the Hollywood dance film.” International Journal of Performance Arts and Digital Media 5.2-3 (2009): 141-153. Print.

Imada L. Adria. Aloha America: Hula Circuits Through the U.S. Empire. London. Duke University Press, 2012. Print.

McMains, Juliet.  Glamour Addiction: Inside the American Ballroom Dance Industry. Middletown, Conneticut, U.S.A.: Weslean University Press, 2006. Print.

2 Comments
  1. Steven Greenwood 6 years ago

    Great article!

  2. Mark Saiboo 6 years ago

    Ballroom samba and dancesport samba are also two different things.

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